More than 10,000 food additives are allowed in your food. Not all of them are safe. This includes both additives added directly into your food to change flavor, color, texture or shelf-life as well as indirect additives that may get into your food during processing, storage and packaging.
The best way to avoid questionable additives is to avoid processed foods as much as possible and instead focus on foods that need no ingredients list (things like fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, beans and lean meats). For the packaged foods you do buy, scour the labels to look for the following 12 additives. If you find them, put the product back on the shelf …
The “dirty dozen” food additives below were compiled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). They “highlight some of the worst failures of the regulatory system,” as these additives are associated with serious health concerns and may be banned in other countries … yet are perfectly legal to add to US foods.
12 Food Additives to Avoid
- Nitrates and Nitrites: These preservatives have been linked to cancers of the stomach, esophagus, brain and thyroid. Look for them in cured meats like lunchmeat, bacon, salami and hot dogs.
- Potassium Bromate: This dough strengthener helps bread and cracker dough rise during baking, but it’s listed as a known carcinogen by the state of California. Potassium bromate is banned for use in food in the United Kingdom and Canada.
- Propyl Paraben: This endocrine-disrupting chemical has been linked to decreased sperm counts and altered gene expression. It may accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells and impair fertility in women. Propyl paraben is used as a preservative in tortillas, muffins and food dyes.
- Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA): This preservative is added to chips, popcorn, preserved meats and more. It is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the National Toxicology Program and is also an endocrine disrupter.
- Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT): Often used together with BHA, BHT is a preservative that has shown carcinogenic effects and caused developmental effects and thyroid changes in animal studies.
- Propyl Gallate: This preservative is found in products with fats, such as sausage (and frozen pizza). It has been associated with tumors in animal studies and may have estrogenic activity, which could have developmental effects.
- Theobromine: Found in a variety of foods from bread and cereal to sports drinks, theobromine has effects similar to caffeine, and may cause reproductive and developmental effects.
- “Flavors:” The terms natural and artificial flavor are vague terms used to represent countless additives, some of which are synthetic and potentially harmful. One flavoring mixture may contain over 100 different substances, and even natural flavors may include propylene glycol, BHA and other harmful substances.
- Artificial Colors: Some, including caramel colors III and IV, may be contaminated with tumor-causing substances (like 4-methylimidazole). Others, including FD&C colors, have been linked to hyperactivity in children.
- Diacetyl: This butter flavoring is commonly added to microwave popcorn, but it is associated with a severe respiratory condition called bronchiolitis obliterans (especially in factory workers). Diacetyl is also found in some dairy products (yogurt, cheese) and ‘brown flavorings’ such as in butterscotch and maple flavor.
- Phosphates: These common additives are used to leaven baked goods, reduce acid, improve moisture retention and improve tenderness in processed meats. In people with kidney disease, phosphates are associated with heart disease and death, and there is concern they may also cause heart disease in people without kidney problems.
- Aluminum Additives: Sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium aluminum sulfate are used as stabilizers in many processed foods. Aluminum is associated with neurological effects, neurotoxicity, neurodegenerative disorders and changes in behavior and learning.